Underpaid And Overperforming: Interwar Disarmament And The Woman That Made Sense Of It

Haakon Ikonomou | 2 February 2022

Anniversaries / Diplomatic History / Gender / International Organisations / League Of Nations / Military History

Liba Hersch, out of focus and in the background, fifth from the right, sometime between 1927-1930 (LONA - S28 - Secretariat Section du Desarmenent 579)

The League of Nations Secretariat was both an institution that offered new opportunities for women in international public administration and diplomacy, and a workplace marked by persistent discrimination against women. What women did and what they got paid for rarely matched.

This historical gender pay gap becomes evident when we look at what was arguably the League’s most important policy area: Disarmament. Within the Secretariat, the Disarmament Section was tasked with providing secretarial support and the curated data of military capabilities, arms production and arms sales for the various commissions that were meant to prepare a general disarmament convention. For most of the League’s existence, the heaviest workload within the Section fell onto the shoulders of one Polish woman: Liba Hersch.

(A little more than) a post office

General disarmament was inscribed directly into the founding document of the League of Nations. The Great Powers, however, were less than eager to let a group of international bureaucrats take the lead. As the British major general Charles Sackville-West laconically remarked in 1919: If there were to be a Disarmament Section it should ‘be merely a post office at Geneva’.

At an early stage, therefore, the technical preparation for disarmament was taken out of the hands of the League Secretariat and given to the so-called Permanent Armaments Commission (PAC), made up of nationally appointed military men. Naturally, these men had little interest in rapid general disarmament - the designed purpose of the body. Meanwhile, at the League’s First Assembly, the smaller states pushed for rapid disarmament and the establishment of a proper Disarmament Section, with high-ranking officials working independently of national interests.

From that moment onwards, until the disastrously failed World Disarmament Conference (1932-34), the Disarmament Section would live a marginal existence. The Section operated on a shoestring budget and - unlike any other part of the League Secretariat - had national military representatives working in its midst (and eating up a big chunk of its funds). Its leadership, moreover, changed swiftly and was kept in the hands of officials from ‘neutral’ countries, so as not to arouse any of the great powers. 

Men at work: the World Disarmament Conference, 1932-34 (https://lontad-project.unog.ch/idurl/1/9480

The section’s most important job was to gather and disseminate information. From the mid-1920s onwards, its primary task was to collect and prepare statistics for two yearbooks: the Armaments Year-book and the Statistical Year-Book of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition. These were aimed at the Assembly, the Council, and the various Commissions established to make proposals for general disarmament schemes - the raw material of an enlightened debate about general disarmament. 

Liba Hersch: underpaid and overperforming

In 1924, the section hired Nahim Sloutzki, a Russian émigré, for the measly salary of 7,000 Swiss francs, compared to the starting salary of a Member of Section of approximately 17,800 (1,000 Swiss francs in 1924 equals roughly £1,800 today). Sloutzki had the overall responsibility for the yearbooks until the 1940s. Due to his statelessness, he was never offered a long-term contract. Responsible for the daily work of gathering, interpreting, and presenting statistics, however, was the Polish official Liba Hersch. 

Born in 1882 in Warsaw, Poland, Hersch had a Licence des Sciences Sociales (1908), was a Doctor of Medicine (1920) and spoke Polish, French and Russian fluently (with decent language skills in German and English). Hersch had come to Geneva in 1905 to study and was kept there by the outbreak of war. 

In 1925, Sloutzki, her immediate superior, considered it essential that Hersch was hired to the Section. Moreover, every Director of the Disarmament Section from the mid-1920s onwards thought she had ‘exceptional qualities’ and that she was performing work ‘which would normally require at least two employees’.

Putting together the statistical yearbooks, she analysed trade and production documents from 60 countries and 50 colonies. She compiled and analysed more than 200 statistical tables, with a ‘perfect guarantee [of accuracy]’. Indeed, one Director argued that it would be impossible to find another person qualified to fulfil this task.

It is astonishing, therefore, to think that Hersch started in the League Secretariat on a succession of temporary contracts, initially working for 20 Swiss francs a day. In 1926, she made 8,000 Swiss francs a year and in 1931 she was offered a local permanent civil servant contract—as opposed to the more expensive international contract, which would have granted her paid leave to visit her home in Warsaw, where her family lived. In 1940, this ‘extremely conscientious and irreproachable civil servant’, was released from duty because of massive cutdowns. 

The glass ceiling

While Article VII of the Covenant enshrined the principle that all positions were equally open to men and women, Hersch’ career was symptomatic. Starting at 8,000 Swiss francs in 1926, Hersch’s salary rose steadily to 11,900 Swiss francs in 1937. By comparison, Sloutzki - by no means a privileged official of the Secretariat - earned 12,000 Swiss Francs in 1925, 14,500 in 1926 and was made a Member of Section in 1928. 

As the historian Myriam Piguet has shown, the median income of women within the League of Nations was consistently lower than that of men, while career trajectories often stagnated below the grade of Member of Section (MoS). One reason for this was women’s vast overrepresentation in lower-paid secretarial and administrative positions. Like Hersch, however, they would often overperform (doing the work of a MoS) while being underpaid (on temporary or lower-ranked contracts). 

Even those very few women at the top, like Dame Rachel Crowdy, head of the Social Question and Opium Traffic Section (1922-31), were paid less than their male counterparts. And those male counterparts were often part of the problem: One of the reasons why the first (male) head of the Disarmament Section resigned, for instance, was that he was given the same title as Crowdy - Chief of Section - as opposed to the higher salaried title of ‘Director’.

In this context of institutional gender inequality, combined with the specific challenges of the Disarmament Section, Liba Hersch became one solution to the problem of getting maximum output from the minimal existence of the Section. But her career is also indicative of how early, as indeed later, international public administration was built on the systematic exploitation of its female workforce. 

Haakon A. Ikonomou is Associate Professor at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, and Gerda Henkel Fellow with the project European Security in a Changing World: General disarmament between international organization and state sovereignty, 1890s-1930s.

For more on the Disarmament Section, see this article.

For more on women in the League Secretariat, see Myriam Piguet’s article.